Review: Royal Ballet in Les Sylphides /Sensorium / The Firebird at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 30 May 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 5 May 2009

Photo: Johan Persson. Royal Ballet 'Sensorium' Chor: Alastair Marriott.

Performance: 4 May 2009

All around the world, ballet companies are celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the very first performance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (which took place at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 19 May 1909) and this global celebration is appropriate since that explosion of art, music, dance and design was the seminal event in the subsequent development of ballet in the Western world. The Royal Ballet marks the centenary with performances of two Fokine ballets – *Les Sylphides* (which was performed at the Châtelet in that inaugural season) and *The Firebird* (which followed in 1910) – either side of a new ballet by Alistair Marriott. The link for this to the Ballets Russes comes through Marriott’s setting of the work to seven piano preludes by Debussy (the composer of two of the company’s most enduring works).

It isn’t surprising that the premiere seemed the poor relation when set between such iconic ballets. Pairing Leanne Benjamin and Alexandra Ansanelli as the two lead ballerinas was, however, inspired – they’re not often seen side-by-side – and they worked very effectively together and with their partners, respectively Thomas Whitehead and Rupert Pennefather. The choreography for the two couples was the most memorable with Marriott sensitively interpreting musicality and emotion. It was, however, a great shame that the quietest and most poignant moments of the lovely duet between Benjamin and Whitehead were spoilt by a long – and ridiculously loud – passage of mobile phone interruption. The work for the corps de ballet I found to be facile. The whole space was utilised but without any apparent ingenuity in choreography that was as banal as the unflattering costumes. There have been some great new ballets at the Royal Opera House in recent years but this, I’m afraid, will prove to be as forgettable as the Mayday holiday weather.

*Les Sylphides* is a most difficult ballet to get right. There’s no plot or character, and Fokine deliberately rejected any gymnastic tricks in his choreography, to leave just 30 minutes of pure romantic dance in this whitest of ballets blanc. Although associated with the Ballets Russes for this centenary celebration, it is essentially a real Russian ballet, where it is still performed as ‘Chopiniana’ in due deference to its composer. The two Russians I spoke to at this opening night were equally horrified in their belief that hands, arms, backs and mostly everything else was wrong and perhaps this is how it seems from a purist Mariinsky Theatre perspective. I thought, however, that it was charmingly performed, especially by the gossamer calmness of the delightful Yuhui Choe and the attentive, lyrical dancing of Johan Kobborg as the lone man (some say, a poet) caught up in the ethereal world of these sylphs. I didn’t feel that Laura Morera or Lauren Cuthbertson were quite at home in their solos, neither possessing the quality of floating lightness that Choe exudes. But the whole corps de ballet, in long white tulle skirts, succeeded in painting flowing romantic visions of gorgeous lines and tableaux.

*The Firebird* can never really be bad, benefitting as it does from Stravinsky’s sumptuous score and Natalia Gontcharova’s fantastic designs. The culmination of both in the mesmerising final scene with its grand, life-affirming themes is the most perfect end to any ballet. That said, I didn’t find any of the main performances to be especially noteworthy and some were perhaps understated although this criticism certainly didn’t apply to the enthusiastic characterisation of the villain – the Immortal Kostcheï – by the ebullient Gary Avis. He deservedly seemed to garner much applause at the curtain calls although, quite properly, the lion’s share went to the Royal Ballet’s music director, Barry Wordsworth, who conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a tour de force concert of Chopin, Debussy and Stravinsky.

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